In Victory for Women and Free Speech, Court Shuts Down State Ultrasound Law

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In Victory for Women and Free Speech, Court Shuts Down State Ultrasound Law

'Exam rooms are no place for propaganda and doctors should never be forced to serve as mouthpieces for politicians who wish to shame and demean women,' says reproductive rights champion

"This law is about trying to shame a woman out of having an abortion, pure and simple," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the ACLU, said of North Carolina's ultrasound law. (Photo: Mikasi/cc/flickr)

"This law is about trying to shame a woman out of having an abortion, pure and simple," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the ACLU, said of North Carolina's ultrasound law. (Photo: Mikasi/cc/flickr)

A North Carolina law that forces physicians to show and describe an ultrasound to patients seeking an abortion is "ideological in intent" and violates doctors' free-speech rights, ruled a federal court on Monday.

"This compelled speech, even though it is a regulation of the medical profession, is ideological in intent and in kind," wrote Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson in the decision (pdf) striking down the state mandate.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel asserts that the "the state cannot commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient" and that the 2011 law is a violation of the First Amendment.

Reproductive rights groups welcomed the news.

"Exam rooms are no place for propaganda and doctors should never be forced to serve as mouthpieces for politicians who wish to shame and demean women," said Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which along with Planned Parenthood, American Civil Liberties Union, and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed suit against the law on behalf of several North Carolina physicians.

North Carolina's mandatory ultrasound law is said to be among the most extreme in the nation. Describing the specifics of the mandate, Jessica Mason Pieklo, senior legal analyst with RH Reality Check, writes:

The law requires that abortion providers perform an ultrasound and place the image in the patient’s line of sight. Once the image is in the patient’s line of site, the provider must then describe the embryo or fetus in detail and offer the patient the opportunity to hear the “fetal heart tone,” even over the objections of the patient. The law contains a narrow exception that allows a patient to avert their eyes and “refuse to hear” the description, but the provider is still required to place the images in front of the patient and describe them in detail, even if a patient tries to avoid them. 

The law forces this procedure on all patients, even those terminating pregnancies due to rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly, or the health of the patient.

The law was preliminarily blocked in October 2011 following the suit and was permanently struck down as unconstitutional by a federal district court in January 2014. Monday's decision upholds that ruling.

"Today’s ruling marks another major victory for women and sends a message to lawmakers across the country:  it is unconstitutional for politicians to interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions about abortion," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a press statement. 

"This law is about trying to shame a woman out of having an abortion, pure and simple," added Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the ACLU.

Four other states have enacted laws similar to North Carolina's. However, in November 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a similar law from Oklahoma, allowing the ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocking the measure as unconstitutional to stand.

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